Review of How To Be A Dressing Gown by Charlotte Oliver

How To Be A Dressing Gown contains an eclectic range of work. Each poem is a gem because Charlotte Oliver has a keen eye for observing the world around her, and the results are both humorous and insightful.

The collection begins with Charlotte locating herself in a world where people are afraid of words (My People),. In this environment, wages and care for others take priority over an artistic soul (Yorkshire Puddings) and the discovery that expressing emotions on paper is a revelation (Her Secret).

…she whispered her deepest feelings 
into the void 
and the peaks and troughs formed outside of her 
and she saw that 
they could be beautiful. 

Family also appear in these early poems. Mum Gets Ready describes untying her housewife self, and hangs her on the back of the kitchen door ready for the morning. The young Charlotte watches as her mother gets ready for a night out, my film star at her dressing table – the red-lined jewellery box dribbles out her pearls. There’s the click of the curling tongs, hiss of hairspray and high heels which puncture the path outside my window as she leaves. The poem is full of visual images, as is Song Of My Granny, who comes to life on the page with her lipsticked giggle and painted nails.

Oh granny, creator of lemon meringue pies, 
who cocked a snook at age – smoked at 9, ears pierced at 70, 
a job at 75 playing music for the ‘poor inmates’ 
in the old folks home. 

Charlotte sees poetry in everyday objects and the title poem, How To Be A Dressing Gown, offers a great example of her talent. Here something recognisable is made special. The role of the dressing gown is that of a hug, and a valuable source of warmth. It has the power of an unexpected sponge pudding with custard. Who wouldn’t rethink their relationship with their dressing gown after reading these lines!

Other day-to-day objects also become poems through Charlotte’s precise observations. It Could Be Anybody’s refers to the odd sock phenomena we’re all familiar with. This one is covered in dust from underneath the bed but when stretched out it reveals a rainbow, chosen because of a love of bright colours. Being Charlotte’s view of a sock, it’s also much more than an item of clothing as it represents the wearer with solid feet that keep us anchored…that cycle to work to save the world.

In Self-Portrait As A Tablecloth, embroidered flowers represent the previous generations who made and owned it, while Shopping List Bird offers a magical world where scraps of paper, receipts, torn notes and sheets lined deep in poems, all turn into birds at night, their countless wings unfolded to and fro as they soared up high towards the setting daytime. 

Part of the appeal of this collection is its blend of styles and subjects. You’re can never be sure what will come next. Not only do the portrait and background poems contain lines of great depth and universal meaning, Charlotte isn’t afraid to leave behind the relative safety of humour. I suspect poems such as Nothing Happens But Everything Happens come from a deeper place. The sudden absence of humour in this poem, first encountered in Her Secret. comes into its own with lines such as these;

Like the silence when you ask if everything’s ok
and the words in their throat crumple up
like a paper straw sucked too hard
and you can’t straighten it out for them

For me, this and the following poem, Appointment, demonstrate Charlotte’s poetic skill on a different level. Appointment describes a hospital visit, and the struggles experienced when White coasted language, sugar-free, muffles my understanding where, after the examination, the narrator returns to the waiting room;

breathless, desperate to escape
the searing light that sees
bones and tissue, but not sadness. 

These are accessible poems, with powerful images, making it a collection I’d recommend to anyone new to poetry as well as for more experienced poets. Charlotte offers her unique view of the world, often with lines which stay with you long after reading. In My Averageness the narrator describes herself as a brown crumb of Christmas pudding in a pile of shiny coins while being no prize specimen…but necessary so others can shine brighter, while the final poem, We Can Just Be imagines leaving behind the day-to-day world where the language of schedules and plans does not exist…leaving only this moment   this moment   this moment. 

Poetry exists in the moment of reading and Charlotte’s poems use words to create worlds which are both personal and universal. Blending the two takes talent and this collection shows great skill in bringing these qualities together in ways which blend humour with deeper insight. The resulting poems capture moments of emotion, suggesting this is a poet to follow. I’m already looking forward to reading Charlotte’s next collection.


How To Be A Dressing Gown is published by Dreich Chapbooks and Charlotte can be found on Twitter as @CharlotteOlivr (without an ‘e’).

Charlotte is an artist as well as a poet. This image of tulips is on the About page of Charlotte’s website. I think it’s beautiful, like Charlotte’s poetry, and for me, the watercolour is another poem waiting to be written!


 

Review of ‘Learning from the Body’ by Sue Butler

The title ‘Learning from the body’ drew me in. I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with my own body, and wondered if this collection by Sue Butler would offer insight or affirmation. After all, women and their bodies have always been problematic… haven’t they?

The text on the back cover describes Sue as a mother, wife and daughter. These were perspectives I could identify with, but Sue is also a doctor, a profession I know little about. Reading the opening poem, The Work of Women, I realised a lack of medical knowledge didn’t matter.

Doctors are half of a relationship and I’ve often been the patient on the other side of the desk or bed. The Work of Women took me back to being stitched after my first experience of childbirth. Here was the pain from a different perspective with a doctor who had learned to sew flesh by making French seams on fabric. I loved the image of the cone of starch white light over her shoulder as Sister did, pushing her wire rim glasses down her nose, and the mother and baby as they begin to learn their separation.  The poem segues between present and past with the absorbing catch on skin of needle, lips, fingers, merging with the memory of nuns and how they prayed together for each other. Reading these lines, I felt confident the collection would contain poems I’d understand, despite knowing little about medicine. The lack didn’t matter because good poetry contains spaces for the reader to fill in and this poem was allowing me to do this.

Sue’s poems are precise and well structured. The clarity of the images invites the reader into a different world such as the title poem Learning from the Body which introduces the experience of autopsy. A basement room is separated from pedestrians on the other side of the frosted glass window, where sunlight slips in and burnishes the skin of his thigh to the rich, smooth texture of polished ebony. All the senses are evoked, especially sound; the clang of scalpel against the metal tray, the seep and reek, the rasp and snap which precede his final release. Practical observations of the colour of skin…state of lungs, heart, weight of liver merge with something more personal as the certainty of death trickles over my forehead, down the creases of my nose. All the while outside the pedestrians pass soundlessly to and fro. This is great visual writing.

We all exist in multiple worlds, but are often unaware of what is happening in the next room or across the street.  Poetry can shine a light on the unknown, making us aware of different experiences, as well as creating resonance. I felt this particularly strongly in the poems which stepped outside the surgery and hospital.

Whale, Walking away and Walking up Quinaig are centred in the natural world, in places of water, dales and mountains. It’s not difficult to think this is where Sue might find an escape from the ever-present sickness and death encountered in her profession, and maybe searches for answers to the inevitable questions we all ask when faced with the loss of a loved one or on encountering disease with family and friends.

Walking away is one of my favourites in the collection. It takes the reader to the Yorkshire Dales where

…an enchantment

falls across the grits
and scars of the dale,
the clints that skin
shins, the grykes that turn
ankles, the wind that whips
chilblains into cheeks.

There are ewes and lambs, lapwings, fossils, and low flying jets, their roar trapped by the wiles of the landscape, alongside a burst of hailstones, hard as pickled conkers. I loved the images of those long gone, the Roman legionnaires and the miners, and how the echo of their lives remains in the landscape

.

Nature is never far away from Sue’s poems.  The Rhododendron is set in a hospital and contrasts the reality of a discussion about an imminent operation with the beauty of flowers with flirting petticoats as they shimmy their ruffles of sugar candy pink, shot with magenta. Ways of looking at a bruise sees it ripe and purple as a plum, sun warm on the palm...flesh soft and wet as unset jelly while the haunting It seemed that some of us were made of nothing describes the shallow water where reeds snagged fragments of coal that crumbled from the seams of the lake. 

The theme of family runs through the poems, calling attention to how every doctor and patient brings other people with them. Whether it’s being forced into the choice between taking a child to its martial arts class or contacting Mrs Briggs about her chest pains in Six o’clock, or the new widow in Last rites whose first automatic action after the death of her husband is to put the kettle on for a cup of tea, these poems remind us how no one exists in isolation.

The relationship between a doctor and patient is confidential but in this collection, their communication is opened up for sharing. The reader is offered insight into a normally private world where illness is the trigger for bringing together people, often strangers, but who have become dependent on each other.

It’s always hard to pick out a favourite poem. I liked Striae, the Latin word used to describe stretchmarks. This is probably because I have the scars and found the idea of life lines to be compassionate, especially the reminder of their association with a new person. It’s too easy to think of striae as cosmetic and forget what they really represent.

this is where all arms first stretch
this is where all feet first kick

I was particularly moved by the final poem Cum Scientia Caritas (knowledge with compassion, the motto of the Royal College of General Practitioners). It’s a short poem but for me, the shifting roles for mother and daughter, sums up all of life, succinctly and with beauty.

Age outruns science.
Healing simply fingerstrokes
in the evening sun.

The beloved daughter
now sponges, clothes, quietly sings.
The caring seasons turn.

Grey plait, white pillow.
Cool lavender draughts.
Life neatly closing.

Sue’s collection showed me how medicine and poetry are more linked than I realised. In the midst of statistical data and clinical precision, doctors need to find and care for the person as much to cure and heal the disease. They deal with life and death, which are the bookends of what it means to be human, while poetry also deals with similar fundamental issues.

This collection takes the reader on a journey, one which deals with facts as much as the poetic imagination.  The Greek Apollo was the god of poetry as well as healing. The connection between them is old and Learning from the body offers evidence of how this ancient relationship remains true to this day.


Learning from the body by Sue Butler is published by Yaffle Press and Sue can be found on Twitter as @drsbutler 


 

Review of ‘Traumatropic Heart’ by Susan Darlington

I love a new collection. The first encounter is always a privilege because you only get one chance to experience that initial read through. The anticipation, which comes from not knowing what lies ahead, is exciting. I’d already been drawn to the title of this new collection by Susan Darlington, where traumatropic refers to the modification of something, such as the root of a plant, as a result of wounding. Intrigued, I settled down to the title poem, unsure of what to expect, but suspecting I could be in for a treat. I was not disappointed.

Traumatropic Heart begins with an image of a felled oak tree with blackbirds nesting in its crook. So far, so ordinary, then I reached the second stanza.

I swallow them both ~
beak first
and they fly – resolute –
into the heavy chambers
of my traumatropic heart.

I felt in the presence of an imagination I could relate to. Here was something special. The depth and breadth of these poems was fascinating, while the mix of otherworldly subjects, alongside day-to-day reality, ensured going out for a walk would never be quite the same again. From now on, I’ll be seeing the natural world in a different way.

Nature has generative cycles, where everything has a purpose, even when abandoned. Antlers in ‘Dry Velvet’ are discarded by the stag in a process of growth and development. But even though they’re no longer of use to the creature, they still have a function. What we leave behind can be used by others and transformations like these reflect one of the themes running through the collection.

After the storm has passed‘ is full of mystery such as the stranded whale which ‘heaved itself up and into the waves’. I loved the descriptions of sea glass, worn by the tides, the water both polishing and staining its surface and blurring the edges. It made me think of life and how it can batter us at times, still retaining its beauty but continually reshaping it.

I thought ‘It’s said’ was a perfect poem. It introduces the acorn as having a soul, the heart cracking and ‘breaking for those it left behind while its roots are searching for friends who are already on the other side. The poem contains a delicate transition to the personal in the lines I look at the acorns scattered – under the oak tree- and wonder which one is you’. I don’t think there are many people who’d be unable to connect with this.

‘Autumn’ has a stunning first line; ‘Fox carries autumn on her back‘ and later, she pulls the harvest moon into her eyes. It’s an example of the magic and mystery which flows through the collection, sometimes gorgeous but at other times, more malign. The poem ‘Owl’ is positioned across to the first of several line sketches which I thought beautifully enhanced the collection. Owl is sinister; ‘she can take away your fear if you name the right price’ suggesting an otherworldly power, one which needs to be encountered with care, as the final stanza warns the reader.

She opens her other eye, turns her head,
and fixes you with a tunnel black stare
that freezes you with a fear great enough
to take away all you’ve previously known.

It begs the question, what would we give to lose fear, but what is the price of feeling good again?

The sense of something more powerful, and not always benevolent, is another theme. In ‘Magpie eggs (two for joy)‘ the narrator rears the chicklings until they are two weeks old. The strongest pair are then removed and drowned with ‘the rest of the brood within their sight.’  ‘Demolition‘ also speaks of destruction, as does ‘The Trapeze artists’ where one can ‘feel his fingers start to loosen from my grip’, and the ‘Snow Angels’ which are destined to melt ‘over the roots of skeleton trees and into the sea.’

Susan does not shy away from difficult subjects. ‘Hope‘, introduces the theme of the dead or unborn child. who appears again in ‘Ladybird winter‘, ‘Skimming stones‘, and ‘Stone babies‘. Like learning about the word traumatropic, I needed to do some background reading. ‘Stone Babies’ is the name given to a calcified foetus, which can remain undetected for decades. The thought of carrying multiple stone babies without knowing stayed with me long after the first read. I was haunted by lines in this poem such as ‘in one another they have the only company they’ll ever need‘ and ‘they make an unspoken pact – never to be born’.

The sense of difficult loss reaches off the page many times. In ‘Skimming Stones‘, not only has the narrator purposely ‘twisted a leg off the water boatman’ and squeezed the insect ‘between thumb and finger until blood ran’, there is also the creepy presence of the lost village below the reservoir, where the eighth chime of the underwater church bell tower ‘drowned our child’s laughter’.

it’s always hard to pick out favourites, especially from a collection where every poem contains memorable lines, but standout poems for me were ‘Dolls house‘ with its vivid depiction of anger, and the closing poem ‘Translate the notes‘ which has more wonderful images of transformation;

And then one day
I didn’t even need the piano,

I swept its ivory keys
into the concert of my skin

and laid them in the caesura
between my vertebrae.

If I had to pick out one poem, I’d be torn between ‘Vanilla’ with its tender portrayal of love, and ‘Silver Birch‘ which speaks to the reader about a dryad, or tree spirit. The poem suggests an ambivalent relationship between the spirit and its host. There are hints of cruelty where ‘the cuffs of silver birch bind her wrists’ withsplinters of bark scratching flesh. She has the very human ability to feel pain and restriction where ‘The vertical of her body is broken‘ and ‘twigs that were lashed in the gale – have ripped and caught in her tights’. As ‘Vanilla’ was full of soft-sounding words, the first stanzas of Silver Birch are more harsh. ‘Bird song is stifled’ and the ground is parched before a roe deer appears, unheard. There is a powerful  visual effect in these lines where the deer

‘scratches its neck against her hipbone
and lazily nibbles at the ferns
that have germinated across her skirt.

This is followed by the effect of its breath. It turns her blood to sap and the dryad begins to photosynthesize, a biological process for creating energy. She becomes even more evanescent until finally disappearing altogether.

This image of dissipation stuck with me. It’s not hard to believe trees have a unique essence of their own, beyond rational understanding. Although recent research suggests trees are capable of communication, the existence of dryads remains a pagan tradition, but one I don’t find hard to have sympathy for. Trees are special. A walk in the woods or forest can be both settling and uplifting and something about this poem resonated on a deeper level. The relationship between carbon dioxide and oxygen is essential for life, and the meeting between the physical deer and immaterial dryad, creates change. Already spirit, she evolves into the air we breathe.

It’s not dissimilar to the loss of loved ones where our memories from the times we knew them remain. For me, the poem touches on the universal experience of life and death. It made me want to lean up against a tree and in doing so, feel a different lifeform, one we don’t fully understand but is integral to our existence. Any lack of scientific knowledge creates a space for poets and other artists to fill, and I thought this poem achieved that beautifully.

Traumatropic Heart captured me. Not only were the glossy pages a pleasure to touch and turn, each poem invited me on a new journey of discovery. I was sorry to reach the final page but delighted to find the debut collection by Susan Darlington, titled ‘Under the Devil’s Moon‘, which I immediately ordered. It’s another collection I’d highly recommend, but to say any more really needs a separate review!



 

Review of ‘Hanging Fire’ by Louise Longson

Hanging Fire is a chapbook containing 16 beautifully crafted poems. To me, it feels like a collection of pagan poems which speak of life-mysteries as much as day-to-day reality. Each one has the polished feel of careful editing where the removal of superfluous words leaves clean, visual images. Some of these jump off the page while others are more still and quiet. Only poetry can summon such a broad range of emotional responses, and Louise crafts this effect with great skill.

image from https://avax.news/fact/Festival_of_Samhain_in_Glastonbury.html

There’s a mixture of styles and design. Traditional equal-length stanzas in Sunset at Samhain, which I read as an account of Persephone’s descent into the underworld, mingle with unbroken lines in The Star Paradox, an unpunctuated flow like a continual thread of an idea, or thought stream. The line ‘at the same time’, is repeated four times in its 17 lines. It should be too much but it isn’t. Instead, the refrain brings together the elements of the poem, where what we see today in the stars has already long since happened.

Star watching is the closest we can get to time travel. It’s like being in a museum where objects are still present, despite their owners being dead, often for millennia. On those rare occasions when you get to hold something of great antiquity, you can close your eyes and imagine the past in the same place as the present. Reading The Star Paradox gifts a true poetic mystery.

Evening: Overlooking Padstow Harbour is another poem without pauses. The reader finds themself alongside the narrator, looking out through ‘a picture window     our aquarium…’  where the boundary between earth and water is blurred through phrases like the ‘shoals of sightseers’  who are ‘swimming by’ with ‘bubbles pluming     rising    into the air…’

This blurring of worlds can also be found in the title poem Hanging Fire. Here the forest ‘Sometimes feels like an underwater world…’ where trees are ‘barnacled with lichen‘, on a ‘coral reef of leaves and pine needles‘, alongside the wonderful image of tidal light ‘ebbing and flowing with the wind‘. Even the quiet is described in watery terms as ‘ a submerged hush.’ The final lines of this poem refer to the Hanging Fire sculpture by Cornelia Parker.

It seems as old as the forest; an ancient rusting
fire, a flame that perpetually burns.

The flames are symbolic images of perpetual fire, hanging from the trees in a circle, as if fragments of the sun have fallen and been captured in cast iron.

Hanging Fire by Cornelia Parker from https://environmentalsculptures.wordpress.com/forest-of-dean-sculpture-trail/

Something I love is when poetry introduces me to something new. Thanks to the internet, I willingly fall down rabbit holes full of associations. With Louise’s collection, it was the title poem Hanging Fire which led me to the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail by Cornelia Parker and others, before the rabbit hole extended off into different directions.

The trail looks wonderful and it’s a shame it’s so far away from the northern town where I live. Cornelia Parker has several sculptures there, including one of leaves positioned like fungi on the bark of a tree. With this in mind, re-reading Louise’s collection made me think about sculptures as poems.

Poems can raise visual images in your mind. The moon poems Selene and Moonbathing made me think of the silver light of a full moon, rising over fields and woods in the distance. Visual art triggers specific words and phrases. It’s a two-way relationship and, thanks to Louise, I’m now wondering about this further.

Brackets by Celia Parker from https://environmentalsculptures.wordpress.com/forest-of-dean-sculpture-trail/

An example of sculpture as poetry is Strandbeest, a kinetic structure by Theo Jansen. Strandbeest is a giant object with moving parts which is propelled by the wind down a beach. The giant skeleton, constructed from plastic tubing, moves with incredible grace. It’s also a little disturbing, almost the stuff of nightmares, like a poem can touch home in ways you might not have chosen to experience.

One such poem in Hanging Fire was A Ritual to Escape Madness at Nightfall. The opening line ‘When the moon rises, I must gather my wits‘ set me up to expect a sabbat, or some other ritual ceremony, maybe in the woods at night. I didn’t expect what followed. It’s an example of a poem containing the unexpected. Its final lines ‘This is the last time, the last time, the last…‘  shares the universal cry of the addict who knows they must stop, but only has the power to think this when in the grasp of a fix.

It’s always hard to select a favourite poem from a collection but Theia ticked all the boxes. I like poems that take on the voice of inanimate objects and I loved the imagery of the collision between the earth and Theia, an impact where tons of molten material hit the earth’s atmosphere, before congealing to create the moon in ‘a first, only, kiss…’ As if this were not enough, I was unfamiliar with the story of Theia, so learned something new. For me, it contained all the elements of perfection.

Outside of Hanging Fire, Louise has written other poems including this one, published by One Hand Clapping.

St. Michael’s Churchyard (Autumn)

Even on the calmest evening,
when the trees stand mute
and the leaves of ivy-covered
graves are motionless,
nothing is still. 

White winter pansies shake
their neurasthenic heads on
slender stalks and I remember
your hospital gown; the thinness
of your limbs; your breath’s last rush.

Sounds carry, even in
this airless space – voices
of lives that are not our own
insist on being heard. 

Rooks congregate;
a radio blares. Each evening
there’s another final harvest.

Other poems by Louise include Chiromancer in The Poetry Shed and Working Late in The Ekphrastic Review. Further examples can be found on Twitter where Louise tweets as @LouisePoetical.

Louise Longson 

Hanging Fire is Louise’s first collection. It’s full of magic, mystery and the promise of more to come. I’m looking forward to seeing what follows next year and would recommend Louise as a poet to watch out for in the future.


Hanging Fire by Louise Longson is published by Dreich

Louise tweets as Louise Poetical https://twitter.com/LouisePoetical

images without captions in this post are all copyright free from pixabay


 

John Keats and ‘negative capability’ then and now

John Keats by Joseph Severn (painted 1845)

I revisited Keats after reading this blog post a fix of autumn, the darkness coming down by Felix Hodcroft. Felix writes about the Keats poem To Autumn, saying it’s a ‘poem, so well-known that it’s become a cliché, a hand-me-down (“season of mists and mellow fruitfulness….”) which, however (like much ye olde stuff) repays a fresh look.’

So I did.

I struggle to like traditional poetry, such as the romantics, Keats, Shelley, and Byron. I find them difficult to read. For me, there’s a lack of resonance, but I followed Felix’s advice and listened to the Radio 4 series on Keats Odes, starting with Sean O’Brien and Ode to Melancholy. They didn’t help and I still found the poetry of Keats hard going.

Comments on Felix’s post included references to Bright Star, the Jane Campion film looking at the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. Beautifully photographed, it’s a visual treat. The film covers the last years of Keats life and how he was forced to choose between staying with Fanny in Hampstead, or going to Italy for his health.  Keats died within three months of arriving in Rome and twelve years later, Fanny married Louis Lindo with whom she bore a son Edmund, and daughter Margaret.

Fanny kept letters from Keats and her children had these published as Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne. By this time, Keats had become famous for his poetry but his relationship with Fanny was unknown. The knowledge created a scandal during which Fanny was criticised and seen as ‘unworthy‘. This viewpoint remained until the 1937 publication of her letters to Keats sister, also called Fanny. Letters of Fanny Brawne to Fanny Keats helped to change public opinion and the relationship between Fanny and John was finally acknowledged as a true love affair.

Portrait of John Keats at Wentworth Place on the day of his composing ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, 1834, by Joseph Severn.

Bright Star includes Keats poetry and hearing his work within the context of the film worked well. The language which I found difficult on the page came to life in a different way, but I still struggled to appreciate the written versions. I think this is partly to do with the language. To Autumn, for example, is full of the dated use of thee’s and thou’s:

Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

This is poetry belonging to a different time, unlike Keats’ letters which I find more readable. In particular, I was intrigued by his reference to ‘negative capability’. In a letter to his brothers George and Tom, dated 1817, Keats describes this as ‘…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…’ It’s the only reference he makes to ‘negative capability‘ but the concept has remained associated with him to this day.

I’ve been reflecting on how this might look in practice.

Discussions with Felix and other poets have shown how poems can be interpreted differently to the poet’s intention. The best way I can describe it is when poems contain fluidity. The lack of fixed meanings allows them to mean different things to different people, despite poets and readers often being strangers to each other, and the poet having no way of knowing what the reader brings to the page in terms of their own life experience.

For me, this is part of the magic of poetry which, like certain music, can reach out and touch. We feel this happening, and can’t always explain why. I’ve been wondering if it might be an example of ‘negative capability’ i.e. the mystery exists, and we’re comfortable accepting it, without the need for explanation. An effective poem is one which leaves ‘space’ for the reader’s resonance. They find themselves on the page, and recognise a life experience, because the poet has left gaps for this to happen.

Sketch of Keats by Joseph Severn, drawn shortly before his death in Rome
I don’t think it matters that I’ve struggled to appreciate Keats poems. It doesn’t lessen my interest in him as a person, and I remain fascinated by his short life and the personality which comes over from reading his letters. Culture changes and Keats speaks from a different time, using words and phrases belonging to the early 19th century rather than 2021. Language is constrained by the time in which it’s used, yet Keats works better for me when heard rather than read, which suggests his poetry still contains magic.
Keats Shelly House in Rome and the room where Keats stayed and died
While researching Keats, I came across some interesting videos on You Tube.

The Death of Keats‘ provides a tour through the Keats Shelley House in Rome, as does A Walk Through the Keats-Shelley House with Giuseppe Albano, Curator of the museum.

Keats House, also known as Wentworth House, visits what was originally a pair of semi-detached residences in Hampstead, where the poet lived from 1818 to 1820, and where Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on an Grecian Urn were written.

I’m currently reading the book Bright Star which contains the love letters from John Keats to Fannny Brawne.

Often beginning ‘My Dearest Girl‘, or ‘Lady‘, and ending ‘Yours forever’, they’re still full of emotion, for example ‘Will you confess this in the Letter you must write immediately….write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been‘.

Like Keats’ poetry, the language comes from a different time, but anyone who’s felt love will find something to identify in these letters where the voice of Keats remains on the page.

My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you — I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again — my Life seems to stop there — I see no further. You have absorb’d me.’

Such a shame the art and practice of letter writing has waned!

Finally, it might be worth remembering that Keats poetry was not well thought of in his own time. This was maybe due to him not fitting into the English class system, as much as a dislike of his poems. Unlike fellow Romantic poets Byron (educated at Harrow and Cambridge) and Shelley (Eton and Oxford), Keats left school at 14 to become an apprentice to a surgeon and apothecary. His life is detailed in a number of biographies both old and new. Keats by Sidney Colville (1909)  and The Life of John Keats by William Michael Rossetti (1887) can be read online while contemporary accounts include the controversial ‘John Keats a New Life‘ by Nicholas Roe and more traditional Keats by Andrew Motion. Chapter One can be read online here.

When Endymion, the first ‘long’ poem by Keats, was published in 1818, it was poorly received. I quite liked it on first reading, and then discovered On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. Maybe the subject matter of ancient Greek myth and legend was closer to me than the Odes, I’m not sure.

Nevertheless, it goes to show if at first, you don’t like a poet, don’t give up. Keep trying their work and maybe something, somewhere, at some time, will eventually speak to you.

Posthumous image of Keats by William Hilton, in the National Portrait Gallery, London

 

Review of ‘A Glimmer o Stars’ by Lynn Valentine

Each of the sixteen poems in A Glimmer o Stars by Lynn Valentine, has been published in Lynn’s Angus Scots as well as English. On my first reading of this lovely new pamphlet, I covered up the English so I could experience the Scots.

There were places where I wasn’t sure of the meaning, but found speaking them out loud offered useful clues, like haun haudin for ‘hand holding’, efternuin for ‘afternoon’, and I sik yir for ‘I seek your’. I’m so glad Hedgehog Poetry Press did this.

Sometimes, text on the page can reveal less than the voice does and I’m now thinking how lovely it would be to listen to these poems while ‘haudin the buik in your haun‘ at the same time!

A Glimmer o Stars contains poems of great tenderness. Set in Scotland with ‘the smell of smoked fish that still makes my veggie mouth water’, and ‘the red of the cliffs bright at any time of year’ (The Language of Home), alongside the ‘small snow of lambs‘ and ‘daffodils drowning in hailstones’ with ‘sly winds starting low then taking over the whole length of sky‘ (A Lost Friend). 

There are poems about family and friends, they speak of love and loss, while being a testament to those no longer with us. The theme of remembrance runs through the book.  There’s the ‘boy in class, the one that could always make us laugh’ who now has their name ‘written on the harbour stone, I mark your passing every time I’m home‘ (A drowning). 

For the mother, the weather map on the tv represented the locations of her family, it ‘tethered and tied us to her coordinates, located her son in the centre of things, held my sisters’ summers in the same spot as hers’ (My Mother’s Complaint).

Meanwhile, the father ‘whistled as if the world was his alone’ before starting up the snowplough for ‘his careful handling of a snoozing town, as he cleared the roads‘ (My Father at 4 a.m.). These are lovely poems of remembrance where, as in so much Lynn’s work, the everyday mingles with the universal, as in Opening.

We are changed, marked by this year –
a furrow of losses ploughed into the soil –
the earth trembles, crows watch,
our hands raw from prayers.

Love and loss are huge themes but Lynn treats them with delicacy, finding meaning in small details and running a thread of subtle humour throughout.

As well as remembrance, these poems speak of ‘involuntary childlessness’ in ways so powerful they seemed to jump off the page. ‘My barren belly concaves in the wet afternoon, my waterproof the only second skin I’ll own‘ (Sheela Na Gig, Rodel). Visiting a rag well with ‘nervous giggles‘ speaks of places where hope and prayers are manifest in gifts to the earth. ‘We knotted our wishes round the well…white for a child, blue for a cure.’

The reader wants there to be a happy ending but the truth is more painful. ‘You away by midsummer, me and my belly empty‘ (Clootie Well).

Poetry has a way of giving voice to unspeakable things so they can be shared. Reading Lynn’s poems is like opening locked doors, and finding you’re not alone after all. This can be a great comfort, in particular when it comes to difficult subjects.

The title of the pamphlet comes from the poem Snow Blind, one of my favourites. The opening lines pull you in and carry you on to its sad, but beautiful, ending.

She can sense the emptying of the sky
though her sight’s nearly gone, her eyes
a glimmer o stars. This cold snap
came on quick and now everyone flies.
She can’t hear the housemartins
anymore, their small cheeps
above the fields. She listens to the geese
going north, their song of for snow, for snow.
By winter, if she’s spared, she’ll be
snow-blind, neither use more ornament
to anyone. She’ll choose a course,
~go travelling for snow or sun.

There’s so much to like and love in A Glimmer o Stars. Lynn’s poems are full of stunning images like the sparrows with cold children, where the poet saves loose dog hair, ‘pushing it into trees to warm their nests‘ (A lost friend).

The line ‘hope was measured in small things’ returns to the theme of memories, and how small objects can carry so much meaning. The line describing a street in Prague, filled with bundles of wool and shelves of tins, put me in mind of a collection of poems like this pamphlet, where each blank page is an opportunity for the poet to ‘…weave, shuttle and loom, knot gaps for other peoples dreams’ (Lacuna).

The image of weaving reminded me of ‘rhapsode‘, from where we get ‘rhapsody’. In Ancient Greece, the name was used for the performer of epic poetry such as Homer, and can be translated as ‘sewing songs together’.  Lynn takes the imagery of the loom one step further, by knotting gaps for other people’s dreams. I interpreted this as ‘resonance’.

We turn to poetry for different reasons; comfort, pleasure, recommendation, or simple curiosity. Sometimes, when a line resonates, it becomes part of the attraction. I liked ‘hands raw from prayers‘ (Opening). The words not only reinforce the passage of time, but speak of longing and desire, as evidenced in Pickers, where the womb of the earth quickens, birthing potatoes as children.

Pickers also offers examples of Lynn’s lovely, gentle rhymes, so subtle they risk being missed, especially when reading to yourself. I’d suggest reading them aloud to fully realise their cleverness and subtlety. These rhymes are as much about the sound a word leaves behind, or the shape of it in your mouth and on your tongue. It’s the best type of rhyming, as in ‘field and leave’, ‘work and earth’, and the repetition of ‘ing’ in the final stanza.

Readers are shown the power of language in these poems, not only to communicate but to physically mirror who we are. Language can both unite and separate, but I prefer to think of it as linking people together and Lynn is gifted at this.

It’s also clear that Lynn treasures language. The opening poem The Language of Home (after Roger Robinson), sets the tone of the pamphlet with its closing words I will take this gift and pass it on, write my words, sing my songs.

The closing poem All sunflowers turn, is another of my favourites. It describes Lynn packing the weather into a bag, with the intention of emptying it onto her mother’s bed, a gentle repetition of the weather theme introduced in My Mother’s Complaint.

Memory is fixed in the setting sun, which is always different, always beautiful. It represents the time of day when we’re reminded of the breadth and depth of a world bigger and greater than we are, and provides a beautiful image to end the pamphlet.

I will open your eyes to the reddening sky, 
turn your head westwards, stay for always.

What are poems after all, if not attempts to pin life onto the page for sharing, to be read in quiet places, or as windows to be looked through by strangers.

The best poems are like rags tied to the trees at Clootie Well, made and left behind for others.

Lynn’s poems are physical evidence of presence in a world of multiple voices. If you want to write poetry, but don’t know where to start, I’d suggest reading A Glimmer o Stars. The poems offer ways into poetry which are accessible and have meaning, while also demonstrating how the heart of a poem often lies in its unexpected twists and reminders of universal experience, something Lynn does so well. I loved these poems and am looking forward to reading more when Life’s Stink and Honey, Lynn’s first full collection, is published by Cinnamon Press in 2022.

A Glimmer o Stars is published by The Hedgehog Poetry Press. The print version has sold out at Hedgehog, but the e-book is still available. Alternatively, a print version can be ordered via Lynn’s website lynnvalentine.com where you can read more about Lynn and her poetry. Finding a Voice Lynn Valentine is another page worth visiting, and lastly, to see and hear Lynn herself, watch The Aunties, a poem not from this collection but one which includes the line Life’s Stink and Honey, to be published next year by Cinnamon Press.

Auctioning Sylvia

In July, Sotheby auctioned possessions belonging to Syliva Plath and a pack of tarot cards caught my eye. A gift from Ted Hughes, the estimated price was £4-6000 but they sold for £151,200 (exclusive of taxes and costs). Since then, I’ve often wondered who owns the pack now, whether they use them or not, if they’re on display to selected visitors or maybe even shut up somewhere out of sight.

Possession always carries the risk of theft. Some owners choose to store valuable objects in secure vaults like The Geneva Free Port where investments appreciate in darkness year on year. Da Vinci’s Christ as Salvator Mundi, was there following its purchase for $75 million in 2013.  Also Klimt’s Water Serpents II, bought for $183.8 million in 2012, before being sold on privately a few years later. This secrecy contrasts with valuable items on public display in museums and art galleries around the world.

Images from the Marseilles tarot

Syliva Plath’s tarot is a Marseilles pack. Also known as tarocchi or tarock, the design can be traced back to 17th century Italy. Playing cards with four suits and court cards have been dated from 13th century China. Over time, the 22 images of what’s known as the Major Arcana, has been thought to function as some form of trumps. The association of the tarot with mysticism and divination isn’t referenced until the 18th century. Like astrology, the intuitive value of the cards is often rubbished, but the archetypal representations of the major arcana images remain a fascination for many.

It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to think of the poet holding, shuffling and laying out the cards on a table. Syliva refers to the tarot pack in her letters and journals, although the references appear more to do with her intentions to learn rather than the record of any first-hand experiences. Ann Friel in Sylvia Plath, Ariel and the Tarot claims the cards appear in her poetry although some of the links feel tenuous rather than factual. It’s easy to conclude Plath-fans are looking for what they want to see rather than what is. Nevertheless, the tarot was undoubtedly a part of her life, one which sat alongside a desire to cast horoscopes and delve into the existence of fate as a force to be understood, sometimes challenged, but always present.

What gives inanimate objects, such as the tarot, the power to attract?

We’re moving into the world of relics. The church is full of them; alleged bones of saints, cross splinters, crown thorns and fabrics with the imprint of a face in blood and sweat. The last time the Shroud of Turin was on public display in Turin’s cathedral in 2015, millions queued to see it. Regardless of the lack of science, pieces of cloth like the Veil of Veronica, the Mandylion, or the Veil of Manoppello, all retain a fascination for those who want or need to believe in hard copy evidence of the existence of Christ.

It’s not just religious items which have this power. At Haworth Parsonage you can look at Emily’s writing desk, Charlotte’s clothes and a cambric hanky belonging to Anne. Possessions like these remain with us long after their owners have gone. I don’t think it’s too difficult to believe something of the people who owned and used them also remains left behind. The objects have become relics.

Relic derives from the Latin reliquiae, meaning ‘remains’, and is a form of the Latin verb relinquere, to ‘leave behind, or abandon’.  Religious relics are housed in reliquaries which often form part of a shrine, a word from the Latin scrinium meaning a case or box for keeping papers.  A relic has survived the passage of time. Even where the original culture has disappeared, they remain cherished for their historical and emotional value.

Victorian collectors often housed their relics or collections in what’s referred to as a Cabinet of Curiosities. These are fascinating to see, for example, Wondrous Obsessions: The Cabinet of Curiosities, while A Cabinet of Curiosities includes the Rotunda at Scarborough and Whitby Museum. Both contain huge eclectic collections, open to the public and well worth a visit.

The Rotunda Museum in Scarborough

Objects create connections while the shared experience of seeing them feels incremental. The more they’re revered through the centuries, the greater their power. I’m not particularly religious but like to visit sacred places, both pagan and catholic, and have often felt something tangible which is hard to explain. Maybe it’s partly the accumulated effects of centuries of belief rather than a connection with some form of divinity.

Outside of the sacred, the 1999 ‘Monet in the 20th Century’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, included several of Monet’s giant water lilies. These were displayed with the canvas edge showing rather than it being hidden by frames. Viewers could see where the brush strokes faded away before stopping. Seeing this was like going back to the moment of origin. The personal connection was more effective than seeing the overall completed work.

Back to the auction of Slyvia Plath’s possessions. Sotheby’s called the sale ‘Your Own Sylvia‘, a play on words as successful bidders now ‘own’ the items, and in doing so can be said to possess something of Sylvia herself. This is an old belief, one stretching back to the ancient Greeks who thought a statue was much more than a representation. The physical shape of a god, or an image on the tomb of the dead made popular by the Romans, somehow indicated presence.

Tarot cards are traditionally believed to absorb energy from their owner. An old belief says no one else should handle them, other than shuffle or draw for a reading, and they should be kept in the dark. There’s little factual evidence they possess power, yet many people have unswerving faith in the ability of such inanimate objects being able to connect with external forces. This involves believing in several things simultaneously i.e. that such forces exist in the first place and the world is layered into conscious and subconscious awareness. In the case of the tarot, the archetypal images act as bridges or doorways to alternative realities.

image showing a selection of tarot cards

I wrote about the tarot in a post titled Tarot archetypes and Poetry Prompts which followed on from On Archetypes and Poetry. Both posts address the sources of creativity and the need for a translative process in order to make connections between the ‘here and now’ of the present and the existence of universal beliefs and memories. Jung called this the collective unconscious or a form of genetic memory. Without proof, I still believe the tarot can be a useful prompt for bringing these together. It’s similar to the experience of an open fire at night, or the single eye of a harvest moon rising low on the horizon in September.

image showing a fire at night beside a river

Whoever owns Sylvia Plath’s tarot is now in possession of a device which she appears to have believed was an effective prompt for poetry. Belief, like faith, is a powerful emotion and many people will claim meditation on the images can help cross the boundaries between the known and the unknown. When it comes to writing poetry, it’s these universal experiences that help create the resonance which stays with the reader long after the poem has ended. Someone, somewhere, wanted this tarot pack enough to pay over £150,000 in order to own it and I wonder if they are a poet.

 

Review of ‘When I think of my body as a horse’ by Wendy Pratt

Motherhood is a universal club women take for granted, until they find their entrance is barred. The poems in When I think of my Body as a Horse by Wendy Pratt are about the struggle to gain membership to this club. They are beautifully written poems, but not easy to read because they deal with the death of Wendy and her husband Chris’s daughter, Matilda. The collection is a testimony, not only of Matilda’s life but also the siblings who were conceived, then lost.

The book follows the journey Wendy and Chris made as they tried to start a family.  Like so many others, they had no idea what the future held. This is poignantly shown in the intimate Sleep (for Chris), which contains a terrible prescience in its final lines. A single star in the sky

can stare straight in at our nudity
our utter innocence.

With no indication of what lies ahead, we are innocent of future delights and tragedies. Instead we live from day to day and in The Language of Pre-Motherhood, Wendy is unable to find the moment of change when the decision was made to become parents.

I don’t remember a discussion,
but there must have been one

there must have been a catalyst
the thinnest slice of the thinnest razor
splitting the moment

when we went from being two
to the imaginary three

Membership of the Motherhood Club guarantees common ground, one which offers affinity with strangers and provides topics of conversation which can be relied on. You gain automatic entry with the birth of your first child, while the months prior to birth are like standing in front of its open doors. looking inside. This is the time when baby shopping is validated, and you’re exposed to the vast range of products you had no idea existed. You think of your own mother and grandmother, and how it’s your turn to perpetuate the archetype of motherhood. Wendy describes this in the language of sainthood.

And I waited meekly for my turn 
as one by one the others were beatified 
rising up: a rapture of motherhood…

… Until there was no one left 
who spoke my language.

The language was infertility. Diagnosis tells the reader there are problems on both sides, with just two lines representing 60 individual months of hope and subsequent loss.

The five years we’ve been trying
to conceive: a waste of time.

I’m not entirely sure where Matilda first appears. It might be the thirteenth poem titled Embryo Transfer, where Wendy and Chris have to wait 14 days to know if an embryo has embedded.

                   In exactly fourteen days, 
the morning will arrive and you may 
be carted away; a mote of a dream 
on the razor edge slant of the morning’s light.
Until then let me keep you with me,
held fast with blood and imagination,
longing and love.

Two poems later, there is the wonderfully titled Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare, dedicated to the memory of M. If this is Matilda, these are the poems where she exists. Nesting is about shopping for ‘tiny baby bits’ and putting the Moses basket together.  My Favourite Memory describes feeling like a Russian doll with infinite babies inside, and the sensation of being kicked ‘down into my cervix, pushing up under my ribs’. The poems fill the reader with hope until Tachycardia tells us something has gone wrong. The title is the medical term for a heart rate over 100 beats per minute and this appears to be the point where the baby dies.

The aftermath is Air, a poem which refers to a funeral, white coffin, the tiny grave and contains the heartbreaking cry ‘Houdini Girl, how did you disappear?  Air is followed by The Circle of Sisters where Wendy describes the shift from expectant mother to becoming the woman who was different.

I became an embarrassment. I was no longer 
a sister of the circle, but my body 
couldn’t forget their dance, so I danced
in the shadow of my sisters, and shouted
my daughter’s story through the gaps. 

The drive to become a mother is primaeval. Women are biologically, socially and culturally guided towards parenthood from their earliest moments. Every month contains the possibility of pregnancy, too often followed by loss. In Warning, the reader is reminded how the painful process manifests itself. Like the single reference to five years of trying to conceive in Diagnosis, this poem ends with the painfully brief sharing of two further bereavements.

All the time I am warning others, 
My body has become a broken machine
sparking life then promptly distinguishing it. 

I warn myself not to get too happy, 
not to get too comfortable, or too complacent
with the tiny heartbeats in my womb. But I do, 
and death comes, twice more.

The theme of hares runs throughout the collection. They include the wonderful When Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare, Hare Enters the Bedroom, and The Hare Refuses to Speak. Hares are associated with rebirth, the coming of spring and new beginnings. In Hare we’re told,

My husband buys me hare-themed
gifts; we have hare cushions
and hare notebooks.

Hares are also icons for fertility and a symbol of hope, but in this collection, it’s the pattern of loss which continues. Sixth Birthday shows Matilda’s memory living on as Wendy imagines a day spent with Chris and their daughter at the seaside.

In Seven, Wendy visits Matilda’s grave and in Packing the Maternity Clothes Away, another step on the journey of acceptance is painfully taken.

How limp they all look 
how dispossessed, how empty.

It’s like I dropped them here,
when I heard she was leaving,
and returned seven years later. 

Eight revisits some of the time Wendy and Chris spent with Matilda.

I held you like a doll. 
I should have touched 
those still-wet curls, 
sucked those little fingers
kissed your foot soles 
while you were warm.

In Nine, the annual ritual is played out again, with this poem containing what, for me, is one of the saddest lines in the collection.

The pause where we 
wait to hear your first breath
has lasted nine years.

After a bereavement, common phrases are used by family, friends and strangers, such as time heals, you’ll get over it, you can always try again and so on. The truth is, time doesn’t heal and you don’t get over it. All you can do is learn to live with loss and it’s within the process of living where something eventually shifts. This is beautifully shown in Nine Years of Mourning.

There is a snap of umbilicus.
We slide apart. I step away.

Today I climb out of my skin;
my mourning dress. I am nude and white
as a stripped willow branch. I leave the dress behind,
stiff with the sweat of surviving.

The following title poem, When I Think of my Body as a Horse, speaks more about this acceptance.

I do not blame it for lost babies, 
it did its best. I do not blame 
myself for lost babies. I did my best.

I ride my body in a slow companionship.
Comforting it at the end of the day
and I say, Body, you are beautiful, 
you are beautiful, 

There is no language adequate to describe the loss of a child or children, and no social vocabulary for childlessness by circumstance rather than choice. Becoming a family is taken for granted and most couples are not taught how to live fulfilling lives on their own, or given advice for dealing with years of failed attempts to conceive.

In these 50 poems, Wendy has started the essential process of finding ways to speak about losing your babies. In doing so, she has created a collection which will resonate with anyone who has been through a similar situation, or knows somebody who has.

The book ends with hope of a different kind. At the end of the day, two people chose to make a life together, neither of them knowing what lay ahead. Eventually, the time arrives to draw a line under the failed attempts for a viable pregnancy. The decision is made to abandon the fertility clinics and rounds of IVF. The couple accept they are two, and not three or more. The people who met and fell in love continue to exist, and it’s recognising and cherishing this partnership that matters most of all.


When I Think of My Body as a Horse, by Wendy Pratt, is the winner of the 2020 International Book & Pamphlet Competition judged by Imtiaz Dharker & Ian McMillan. The book can be purchased from the Poetry Society website here

When I Think of My Body as a Horse is Wendy’s third full collection. The first collection, Museum Pieces, was published by Prolebooks and the second Gifts the Mole Gave Me was published by Valley Press.

Wendy’s website, Wendy Pratt Writing, contains further details of publications and poetry courses.


 

 

Rejection blues

For some time I’ve been suggesting to fellow poets we need to create a rejection society. This would be our own Salon des Refusés  Somewhere to share how it feels to open emails containing the words ‘not this time‘ or a sentence beginning with ‘Unfortunately…

The standard advice is to remember it’s the words, not yourself, which is being rejected. – or – the poem might not fit the theme – or – the editors had hundreds of submissions for just a handful of spaces.

These inevitably mean saying no to good work.

Too often there’s no feedback to explain the decision. It’s rare for editors to comment but occasionally one might refer to liking a particular poem and even say why. This is gold. Not only does it confirm you’re on the right path, it’s a welcome reward for having the courage to submit in the first place.

For most writers, it takes bravery to put yourself out there. Art comes from within. It’s influenced by our ways of being and seeing in the world so there’s no getting around the fact rejection is personal. You have to learn to deal with it because not submitting isn’t an option for an aspiring writer.

I began sending work out in August 2020. Since then I’ve had 22 acceptances and 77 rejections. I’m not good at maths but that’s definitely more no’s than yes’s, and it still hurts to see a poem come home.

I’ve learned to think of rejections as:

  • opportunities to give poems another polish then resubmit to a different publication
  • evidence I’ve shifted from having aspirations to having completed work
  • a sign I’ve become a writer because I have my own rejection stories to tell
  • time to change my negative thinking; instead of reject I now use decline in my records, somehow it feels kinder 🙂
  • confirmation I’ve upped my game. You have to be in it to win it and the only way to get published is to submit!

Rejection is also an opportunity to improve my work.

A common reason for the no word, is the poem doesn’t conform to submission guidelines so always double-check these, especially the word or line limits, and be sure to read the journal you’re submitting to. If your work doesn’t fit its theme or style then it’s a waste of everyone’s time and energy. As for any lines or phrases which didn’t feel quite right – now’s the time to rethink them. Make every syllable earn its place. less is more and all that. Reread some poetry books or watch YouTube poetry videos, both your favourites and maybe some new ones.

I’d recommend the following –

Find some critical friends. Being told your work is great does wonders for your ego, but you need more specific detail, such as what works and what doesn’t.

The downside of critique is conflicting advice which leaves you uncertain of which way to go. Here instinct and intuition come in.

I submitted a poem to an online poetry group and without exception, everyone came back to say they didn’t like the ending, yet I did.

The phrase ‘kill your darlings‘ has been attributed to various writers but it doesn’t really matter who first said it. What counts is being prepared to let go of something you think is good when no one else does. In this case, I’ve kept the poem as it was because I feel so strongly about it. However, if it goes out for submission and gets repeatedly rejected, at least I’ll have an idea why!

Stay positive.

Submission is a strange experience. Quite often a personal favourite is declined while the least favourite, or the one added at the last minute to make up the numbers, is accepted. Also, there’s the poem you really like which keeps coming back home, until someone somewhere unexpectedly says Yes.

Subjectivity is the name of the game and there isn’t much you can do, other than stay calm and keep submitting.

Remember you’re not alone.

J.K. Rowling’s original Harry Potter manuscript was famously rejected by 12 different publishers, and the advice she received included “You do realize, you will never make a fortune out of writing children’s books?” I wonder what they think today wherever they’re in the R section of Waterstones!

Stephen King is also no stranger to rejection. Carrie was turned down by no less than 30 publishers, Despite being told “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. he kept sending it out. You might not like the genre or Stephen King’s style of writing but his persistence is worth remembering.

There are lots more examples of rejection responses online, such as the one in the image above which was sent to Alice Walker about The Colour Purple.  If you’re having the rejection blues, try these https://www.openculture.com/2013/11/rejection-letters-sent-to-three-famous-artists.html I guarantee reading them will make you feel at least a tiny bit better.

To end with, always remember the quote below from Sylvia Plath (The Unabridged Journals)I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”

The next post is from the series ‘beekeeping through history’ and offers a journey through the world of medieval beekeeping.


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tarot archetypes as poetry prompts

image showing a selection of tarot cards
image showing a selection of tarot cards from https://pixabay.com/photos/craft-tarot-divination-2728227/

Last month I posted some thoughts about archetypes and poetry. These touched on the role of the unconscious in creativity and how studying archetypes can help create bridges between our inner and outer worlds. Archetypes reside at an unconscious level, but by lifting them into the light, it’s possible to utilise these universal images and ideas. A tarot pack is full of archetypal figures and this post explores how they might be used for writing poetry.

Jo Bell in How to be a Poet suggests ‘Poetry is part alchemy, part practical formula‘ (2017: 34). Alchemy is a useful word for describing the writing of poems. Combining science and magic, the alchemical process is not dissimilar to how solid words can frame more transient thoughts and emotions. To be an alchemist is to work with the transmutation of one substance to another, while poets need to utilise both realism and symbols, and be able to segue seamlessly between conscious and unconscious levels.

The Alchemist by Joseph Wright of Derby

Sometimes a poem appears and you find yourself wondering where it came from, or weeks might pass without the magic happening. In the way an alchemist deals with multiple layers of reality, poets often work in those blurred spaces between the real and symbolic. For the times when the poetry gets stuck, I find tarot cards a useful stick for prodding the unconscious back into action.

A tarot deck consists of two parts; the major and minor arcana (arcana from the Latin for hidden or secret). There are clear similarities between the hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds of today’s playing cards and the swords, cups, wands and pentacles in the minor arcana. However, the origins of the major arcana are less obvious.

These 22 cards are full of archetypal images such as the Fool, Magician, and Lovers but their exact beginnings are unknown. There’s no references to tarot prior to the 15th century, and current links with the occult and mysticism can all be traced to the writings of Eliphas Levi in the 1800’s. Working with tarot involves accepting these blurred origins. It’s best to think of the cards as being less about where they came from, and more about how they’re used today.

The strength of the tarot is it can be whatever you want. Packs have been linked to numerology, mysticism, spirituality, occult, astrology, kabbalah, fortune-telling, a psychological journey, therapy, meditation and so on. The list is almost endless. The reason for this eclectic spread of beliefs is because the cards use the language of symbols, and this ensures everyone can relate to them on a personal level.

examples from the Arthur Rackham tarot pack

There are over a hundred different tarot packs ranging from traditional designs to more contemporary ones, many of which are themed. I recently added the Arthur Rackham deck to my collection because I’ve always loved his illustrations.

However, most of the time, I use the Rider-Waite deck illustrated by ‎Pamela Colman Smith. First published in 1909, there’s a picture story on each of its 78 cards. I’ve had this pack all my life and it’s the images underpin a collection of 22 tarot poems, one for each card in the major arcana, which is currently under development. The choice of pack is important. The design has to have lasting appeal and this one remains my go-to set for new ideas and inspiration.

Connections with archetypes are clearly visible on most of the cards, in particular the major arcana.

For example, the Empress represents everything to do with creativity and the natural world. She is fertility, motherhood, abundance and femininity as opposed to the masculine energies of the Emperor, who stands for authority, leadership and control.

The High Priestess is also a feminine card, but whereas the Empress is about physical reality, the priestess represents the intuitive and spiritual world of the heart and mind, hidden behind the veil in her temple. The Hierophant is the male equivalent and stands for the physical dimensions of faith and belief, alongside a need for study and shared experience. While the High Priestess (initially called the Papess) is about solitary intuition, the Hierophant (or Pope) is more to do with bringing together people with similar spiritual attitudes and ideas.

The chariot is another physical card. This time the individual is being torn between opposing forces, represented by two sphinx or horses. These are often shown in contrasting colours and facing opposite directions. The Chariot signifies a need for strength or willpower to bring disparate, sometimes contradictory, elements together. Physical endeavour is required to enable a destination to be reached, or a desire to be realised.

In contrast, the Hermit is silent and solitary. This card always reminds me of the archetypal wizard in myth and legend. His stick might be a wand (tarot wands represent the element of fire) plus he carries a hexagon star for light.  The landscape suggests standing on top of a mountain range, but there’s no sense of movement. It’s a card which signifies both consciousness and unconsciousness and the Hermit has learned to move between them with grace.

Other cards with clear connections to archetypes include Death, Devil, Sun and Moon. The origins of cards such as the Hanged Man and Tower stuck by Lightening are less obvious but they are equally full of symbolic meaning.

While each card represents a given set of ideas and images, they can also spark unique insight which derives from individual ways of seeing and being in the world. Used as prompts for creative writing, the tarot offers a valuable psychological tool for bridging real and imaginary and can stimulate creative responses from both the conscious and unconscious parts of ourselves.

image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/full-moon-forest-woman-wolf-1654539/

The cards can be used as tools for meditations, or to stimulate a free-writing session. You can work with the cards singly, in pairs, threes, or even a circle. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • imagine each character’s name and background.
  • where do they come from?
  • where are they going?
  • focus on potential sounds, what can you hear?
  • is the water smooth and calm, or wild?
  • examine the landscapes, are there mountains, a garden or a desert?
  • what can you smell?
  • how is the weather, is it hot, cold, wet, dry etc?
  • which colours are the strongest and what do they remind you of?
  • which three characters would you invite for dinner?

Get to know each person. Do you know anyone who looks like they do? Swap their gender. How would they change if they were smiling, shouting or crying?  Encourage the characters to speak and listen to what they say.

Try it and see what happens. Use the comment box below to share anything unexpected or inspirational. It might feel strange but no one is watching and the experience may well be worth it!


To come…

A future post will revisit the Walter Benjamin essay on The Work of Art in the time of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) and The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction by Douglas Davis (1991) to examine the notion of original work having an ‘aura’, which a reproduction cannot have but at the same time, challenge the exclusivity of a first edition. This will link to the advantages and disadvantages of the rise of internet poetry and poets.


tarot card images on this page from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rider-Waite_tarot_deck 


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